The word “religion” often times has a negative connotation. We think of empty rituals, moralism, legalism, etc. The word seems too wooden, too void of feeling.
But, when James says, “Religion that God our Father accepts (James 1:27),” he means much more. The Greek word used means expressions of devotion in the form of acts of worship. Religion for James is not vain acts, without any connection to the heart; rather, it is devotional acts that flow from the heart.
It seems hardily necessary to qualify what he means by religion by adding “pure and undefiled,” but James does not want his hearers to miss the point. There have been countless people who have been fastidious about observing religious rituals but have conducted themselves contrary to their religious beliefs.
During the time of the prophet Isaiah, the nation of Israel had become immoral, unjust and idolatrous. Yet, they still went to the Temple and offered their religious sacrifices. They thought such sacrifices kept them safe.
But, listen to what the Lord said through the prophet: “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers. I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (Isaiah 1:15)
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were unmatched in their religious adherence. In accordance with the tithing laws, they tithed even the spices in their spice cabinets, counting off every tenth cumin seed for a tithe. Yet, they neglected the weightier things of the law: mercy and compassion. What did Jesus have to say to them?
“Woe to you…Hypocrites! …you are like white washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27)
Do you think your name on the church roles means you are safe? Do you think just because you go to church every Sunday you get a pass? Think again.
Thomas Manton, in his classic commentary on James, said, “to be less evil, at the best, will procure you a cooler place in hell.” Such language is hyperbole, and it is true that our salvation is by grace alone.
But, make no mistake about it, our salvation ought to entail good works. The seed implanted in our hearts, on the basis of our salvation, was planted there to grow, blossom, and produce good works.
What would God need to change in your heart for your religion to become pure and undefiled?